Thursday, 14 April 2011

Introduction to Psalm 129/1: De Profundis

Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 70r
Musée Condé, Chantilly.

In this Lent series on the penitential psalms, we are now up to the sixth penitential psalm, Psalm 129 (130). Psalm 129, or the De Profundis, is, like, the Miserere, extremely well known, so I won’t linger over it long. Part I of my introduction to it today; tomorrow I’ll conclude it.  But this is a very profound psalm, so I do hope that my brief notes stimulate you to look at it more deeply!

The opening of this psalm,‘Out of the deep', or ‘from the abyss’ suggests that the speaker is coming from a very dark place in his life. But in fact this is a wonderfully optimistic psalm, full of the virtue of hope; and a psalm that serves well as a prayer for strength against the danger of despair. Like the last psalm, the motivation now is the hope of heaven, not the fear of hell.  As such, it reflects the spiritual progression evident in the sequence of the penitential psalms. 

A prayer for those in purgatory

As with its predecessor Psalm 101, Psalm 129 combines both an individual’s concern for himself, and a more communal dimension. It is a traditional preparatory prayer for Mass.  In the Christian context, however, the De Profundis is actually best known as a prayer for those in purgatory – it is used in the funeral services, and has a partial indulgence attached to the saying of it.

St Francis rescuing souls from purgatory
Molleno (circa 1805-1850)
Brooklyn Museum

I'm not here going to explore those aspects of the psalm relating to its place in the Office of the Dead here (though they are obviously closely related to its role as a penitential psalm) beyond noting the obvious focus on the virtue of hope, and the promise of redemption the psalm offers. 

All the same, as you take the time to read it through again, perhaps you might say it aloud, with the intention of applying the indulgence to a particular soul or the souls in purgatory in general. You can find the Vulgate, as well as that splendid setting by di Lassus to listen to here.  The English, following the liturgical versification, is:

1 Out of the depths I have cried to you, O Lord:
2 Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my supplication.
3 If you, O Lord, will mark iniquities: Lord, who shall stand it.
4 For with you there is merciful forgiveness: and by reason of your law, I have waited for you, O Lord. 5 My soul has relied on his word: My soul has hoped in the Lord.
6 From the morning watch even until night, let Israel hope in the Lord.
7 Because with the Lord there is mercy: and with him plentiful redemption.
8 And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities

Historical context

The dating of this psalm is not clear cut. Many commentators (including St Alphonsus Liguori) suggest that it was composed probably during the Babylonian Exile, mainly because of its references to the redemption of Israel.

Yet 2 Chronicles 6:36-42, which is part of a prayer of King Solomon, alludes to and explains this psalm, and mentions Solomon's father, King David. And it is possible that the last few lines of the psalm were later additions. So the psalm may well be by David himself. 

Of course, there is a whole other debate on the sources, purpose and date(s) of composition of Chronicles. But still...

Here are the verses in question from Chronicles:

"And if they sin against you (for there is no man that sins not) and you be angry with them, and deliver them up to their enemies, and they lead them away captive to a land either afar off, or near at hand, and if they be converted in their heart in the land to which they were led captive, and do penance, and pray to you in the land of their captivity saying: We have sinned, we have done wickedly, we have dealt unjustly: And return to you with all their heart, and with all their soul, in the land of their captivity, to which they were led away, and adore you towards the way of their own land which you gave their fathers, and of the city, which you have chosen, and the house which I have built to your name: Then hear from heaven, that is, from your firm dwelling place, their prayers, and do judgment, and forgive your people, although they have sinned: For you are my God: let your eyes, I beseech you, be open, and let your ears be attentive to the prayer, that is made in this place. Now therefore arise, O Lord God, into your resting place, you and the ark of your strength: let your priests, O Lord God, put on salvation, and your saints rejoice in good things. O Lord God, turn not away the face of your anointed: remember the mercies of David your servant."

God’s great mercy calls forth great penitents

The main theme of this psalm is God’s offer to us of redemption, fulfilled in Christ.

Human nature makes us all sinners, the psalmist points out, yet not only is God willing to forgive, but he offers the ‘fullness of redemption’. There is an important message here, for although one of the key reasons for the neglect of the sacrament of penance is the loss of the sense of sin, the other perhaps is the loss of the sense of God’s mercy, symbolized for me at least by the attempt in recent decades to sanitize St Mary Magdalene’s history, and reject the traditional identification of her with the woman whose sin’s Our Lord forgave in Luke 7.

Yet the idea that even the greatest sinner – whether a murderer and adulterer King David, a prostitute, or one who, like St Peter did, denies Our Lord – can still repent and be forgiven is crucial to our Catholic faith.

Penitent Magdalene, Titian, c1565

It is particularly important, of course, firstly as a message to those who do commit serious sins. St Robert Bellarmine comments:

To be truly penitent, (the subject of the Prophet's instruction in this penitential Psalm,) we need two things; to reflect on our own wretched condition, and to know the extent of God's mercy; because he that is ignorant of the state he is in, seeks for no medicine, does no penance; and he that has no idea of God's mercy, falls into despair, and looks upon penance as of no value.”

But it is also an important doctrinal message for all of us, no matter what the state of our souls at any particular point in time, namely to encourage us to pray for the conversion of others.  For this psalm reminds us that as long as they remain alive, even the most hardened sinner may yet repent and be saved.

More in the next part

In the meantime, a setting by Aarvo Pärt.

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